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'Knocked Up' may be 'Knocked Out' in court

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They say that you don't have to worry about plagiarism in Hollywood very much because nobody is stupid enough to rip off a script that's already been written, given how much it could cost should the ripoff be produced and become a hit. On top of that, ideas aren't allowed protection under intellectual property law (nor should they be) and even if they were, ideas are worthless. And idea isn't the same thing as a stellar script, and that's what they pay people for, that's what they want from writers - someone who can turn any old idea into a great script.

Given how many ideas float around the business in any given year, there are bound to be an incredible number of similarities, and somebody always gets sued over it. The studio and producers behind Knocked Up can now count themselves as the most recent unwilling participants in a court room fight, and I think they may be in some trouble.

This is a case that could very well go to trial, as there's two existing properties that can be readily compared to judge how much, if at all, one stole from the other. In this context, we're talking about the screenplay written by Judd Apatow, and a book written by Canadian novelist Rebecca Eckler.

One thing studios will do to insulate themselves from frivolous suits is not to accept screenplays, manuscripts, or even idea pitches from people without representation, or without invitation. It'd be far too tempting to walk into a studio, pitch the idea you've been slaving over for the past five years (why weren't you writing the script all that time?) only to find out that the studio already has something just like it in development.

That happens all the time, and most people are professional enough to understand that's just how things work. Ideas are a dime a dozen and most of them aren't really all that dissimilar from each other, it's when a writer takes the idea and turns it into a unique story (script) that it has any sort of value, and usually that's when the need or wish for a lawsuit vanishes.

I've read people who have been writing for television for decades that if you give ten writers the same idea and send them home, they'll come back with 10 completely different scripts. That's how the game works, and some people don't understand that, or don't want to understand it. Sometimes though, you actually can get ripped off.

She claims that while pitching her book to Hollywood producers, she learned of Apatow's project and the script, which she says had on it a picture of a martini glass with a pacifier around the stem -- the same as the cover of her book.

Apatow said in a statement through his representatives that the book and film were very different.

"Anyone who reads the book and sees the movie will instantly know that they are two very different stories about a common experience," said the statement, posted on celebrity Web site

Normally Apatow would be right, most people see a couple of similarities between someone else's work and their own, and that's naturally going to happen when they come from the same basic idea - and that's not even speaking to the fact that as with any genre, there's structure underlying the story that is known to work well, and can be mined for greater success.

Even if there are similarities, that's not going to win you a lawsuit. I've seen cases where both sides acknowledged there were as many as 15 or more big points that were the same in both properties, but that simply wasn't enough to win. Copyright infringement protects you from literal copying; it doesn't protect themes or plot twists.

I can legally read your book, and "rewrite" it if I wanted, so long as I changed enough that it was without question original on the whole. New characters, new locations, different interactions, but it's still about a woman to got accident knocked up at a party. It happens, you know? It just does.

Still, while that covers 99% of all lawsuits over this stuff, the fact that the script was going around with a picture on the cover that was identical to the one on her book is hugely damaging. I've never heard of that before, how stupid can you get? And from the sounds of it, I would so that Apatow probably read her book and "reimagined it" for his script, only he didn't do enough leg work to make it original.

I foresee a settlement for this one's future.

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The text of this article is Copyright © 2006,2007 Paul William Tenny. All rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Attribution by: full name and original URL. Comments are copyrighted by their authors and are not subject to the Creative Commons license of the article itself.